Maria's placement year - UK Christmas traditions I'm missing

by Maria Clark

Ah, Christmas. With lovely lights, fantastic food and making memories with friends and family, it really is the most wonderful time of the year. In Lancaster, Michaelmas Term draws to a close with Christmas parties, winter balls and festive markets in Alexandra Square.

But this year, I’m not in Lancaster to celebrate Christmas. I’m currently on my placement year in the Netherlands, where things are done…a little differently. Here are some of my favourite UK Christmas traditions, which I’m very sad to be missing this year, and their Dutch equivalent. Which would you prefer?

The excitement leading up to Christmas Day

Christmas lights in Utrecht, the Netherlands

Every year in the UK, we start celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier. The minute Halloween’s over, we swap skeletons for Santa and trick-or-treating for tinsel. One of the best parts of celebrating Christmas at university is being able to decorate your flat or house exactly when and how you feel like it. Maybe you’re a stickler for rules and only start decorating on 1st December, or maybe you start at the end of November. However, no matter your decoration tastes, you’ll soon be swept up in the madness of Christmas. From the ice rink in Dalton Square to the Santas walking around campus, it’s impossible to ignore the Christmas spirit in Lancaster.

In the Netherlands, however, things are a little different. The Dutch have another celebration known as ‘Sinterklaas’, which occurs on the 5th December. Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, arrives by boat in the Netherlands in the middle of November to bring presents for the children. Dutch children leave out their shoes every evening, hoping Sinterklaas will bring them a treat. On the 5th December, children then receive their main presents for the celebration.

Because of this, Christmas Day isn’t as large a celebration and Christmas decorations don’t tend to appear until after the 6th December. There are still lights up, but the atmosphere’s not quite the same!

Christmas food

Maria's Christmas dinner

Our Christmas dinner in second year

What would Christmas be without all the food? In the UK, December is the time to improve your cooking skills, ready for a Christmas Day feast. At Lancaster, you’ll find yourself attending at least one Christmas meal, incorporating all of our favourite foods. Christmas dinner normally includes roast turkey, roast potatoes, pigs in blankets, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables, bread sauce, cranberry sauce and gravy (with nut roast a great vegetarian equivalent). For dessert, you might have some Christmas pudding, yule log or mince pies, which are small tarts filled with dried fruit and spices.

In the Netherlands, there are also many delicious treats to enjoy. These include pepernoten and kruidnoten (crunchy biscuit pieces with a sweet or peppery flavour), oliebollen (churro-like doughnuts), marzipan and stollen. Other savoury winter foods include a thick pea soup, the smoked sausage rookworst and Christmas bread. In other words, you’ll find plenty of food, wherever you go!

Advent calendars

A Dutch Christmas treat

Dutch chocolate letters for Sinterklaas

On a cold, rainy December morning, what’s the best way to cheer yourself up? Eating chocolate, of course!

Like several other countries in Europe, the UK celebrates the arrival of December with advent calendars – a cardboard calendar split into every day of December, with a treat behind every door. The most popular types of advent calendar are chocolate-based, but you can now get advent calendars focused on make-up, jewellery or even alcohol!

The best advent calendars in the UK include Lindt, Cadbury’s, Hotel Chocolat and Thorntons, and can be found in many supermarkets and shops in Lancaster. If you don’t have a line of advent calendars in your flat kitchen by the beginning of December, you’re doing something wrong!

In the Netherlands, although advent calendars exist, the most important chocolate treats of the festive season are Sinterklaas’ chocolate letters. Shaped as the letters of the alphabet, these chocolate letters are given to friends and family, often representing the first letter of their name or simply an ‘S’ for Sinterklaas. It’s not quite as exciting as chocolate early in the morning, but they still taste amazing!

Ice skating

Maria and her friends ice skating in Dalton Square

Ice-skating in the first-year at Dalton Square, Lancaster

One of my favourite parts of the festive season is being able to go ice-skating. With temporary ice rinks popping up all over the UK, we’re lucky that Lancaster is no exception. The Dalton Square ice rink, right in the heart of town, is the perfect place to spend a winter afternoon. Spend a couple of hours with your friends skating around the Queen Victoria statue, listening to Christmas hits and trying not to tumble. Afterwards, of course, you’ve got to get a Christmas hot chocolate from Costa (the Terry’s Chocolate Orange is just magical!) or a crepe from The Pancake Man to really get in the Christmas mood.

Ice-skating is normally a festive event in the UK, but in the Netherlands, it’s much more common throughout the year. Many of the canals freeze over during the winter, and you’ll find people skating on these for a greater adventure! That said, however, you can still go to festive ice rinks, like ICE Amsterdam, based by the Rijksmuseum. It’s a much more impressive setting, but it still doesn’t quite beat Lancaster.


The woodlands in the snow

Okay, this one isn’t necessarily a regular tradition. But when it snows in the UK, and especially in December, somehow it makes everything better. If you've never seen Lancaster in the snow, you're missing out. From the white-dusted rooftops to the frost-covered cobbles leading up to the castle, there'll always be something to put a smile on your face. Just make sure to wrap up warmly!

The Netherlands gets snow too, but we haven't had any yet. Maybe it’s waiting until Christmas Day?

There's so much more to love about Christmas in Lancaster, and I miss it a lot. I can't wait to celebrate Christmas there next year!

What's your favourite tradition?